Would prisoners use their right to vote?
- 10 February 2011
- From the section Magazine
Some prisoners could gain the right to vote for the first time. But would inmates actually fill in their ballot papers?
They are a section of the electorate few politicians are likely to canvass - but if moves to enfranchise them succeed, many residents of the UK's jails would gain a say in picking the nation's MPs.
The proposal was put forward after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that banning a convicted killer from the polls had breached his right to participate in the democratic process.
To comply with the ruling it has been suggested that only those serving less than a year in UK prisons will gain the vote, and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has insisted the move would be conceding to inmates "a right that they probably wouldn't bother to exercise". But is he correct?
Here, two ex-convicts with very different views of the plans describe what they think prisoners would do with their new-found democratic power.
'If people feel excluded, you get riots'
Bobby Cummines, 58, spent 13 years in prison for offences including armed robbery before going straight. He is chief executive of reformed offenders group Unlock and has served as a government adviser.
"Prisoners are more political than people outside. They have Radio 4 on all day, they read all the papers.
"It's a very political environment. In my day we had the UDA, the IRA - now it's the Islamists. But because it's a microcosm of society, the wacky ideas are outnumbered by the mainstream ones.
"There are Liberal Democrats, Conservatives - when I was inside we had ex-miners who wanted everyone to go to the pits and support the strike. You've got educated people in there, prisoners studying for PhDs.
"Believe it or not, if I was in the dock again I'd rather have a liberal judge than an ex-con on the bench - if it was the latter, I'd be looking at a double-figure sentence.
"At the end of the day, people are inside because they want the middle-class dream - they want the house, the car, two kids. But they go for instant gratification and they get caught out.
"Nobody wants to go back inside. So they think about who would keep taxes low if they set up their own business. Or whether one party is for the working class and another for the rich.
"What happens when people feel they don't have a voice? Look at Northern Ireland - they get bombs and guns.
"If people feel they are excluded, that's when you get riots and disturbances. Depriving prisoners of their liberty is not the same as denying them their rights.
"If you tell people they're not part of society, there's another society that will welcome them with open arms. It's called the criminal fraternity."
Bob Turney is a reformed burglar and drug addict. The 65-year-old was in and out of prison for 18 years before turning his life around. After working as a probation officer, he became a writer and security consultant.
"As a probation officer and a prisoner, I never came across an inmate going: 'Oh no, I've lost the right to vote.'
"Most prisoners don't spend their time in their cells discussing political issues or theories. You're thinking about how much bird you're doing, where your next drugs are coming from, what your next job is going to be.
"These are people who are totally disenfranchised in every sense. And anyway, what can politicians offer to convicted criminals? It's not like they're going let them out.
"So many people in prison were homeless before they were caught - how exactly are they going to vote? What constituency are they in? It's going to be a huge mess.
"It's ridiculous. The whole point of being banged up is that they take away your natural rights - and one of those is voting.
"If I behave myself, then I get to vote. If I don't want to lose that, then I shouldn't be committing crimes.
"As for the idea that voting will help rehabilitate criminals - do me a favour. They've got it the wrong way round. It's not voting that makes you a good citizen. It's becoming a good citizen that makes you want to vote.
"When I came out, I started getting a bit of bite in society. I got married, I was working, I had a family, I became involved in my community. It was because of all that I became politically aware.
"As far as I can see the only people who are going to benefit from this are the lawyers who collected their fees for bringing this case."
What happens elsewhere?
The move to introduce votes for prisoners is hardly one that is likely to win much popular support and the reaction from politicians has ranged from grudging acceptance to outright hostility.
Both the cabinet and shadow cabinet have been told to abstain when the bill comes before parliament and the prime minister's spokeswoman has said the government wants to do "as little as possible" to comply with the court ruling.
But up until now, the UK's resistance to granting prisoners the vote sets it apart from countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland who have no such restrictions.
Some 13 European countries, however, have rules for disqualifying some prisoners depending on the crime committed or the length of the sentence.
Perhaps the most useful comparison, however, is offered by the Republic of Ireland, which gave inmates of its jails the right to participate in elections for the first time in 2006.
With a general election looming in the Republic, just 191 out of a prison population of 4,500 are currently on the electoral register, according to the Irish Prison Service - barely 4% of all those currently behind bars.
Given that those guilty of crimes have, by definition, transgressed the norms of society, it would not be altogether surprising if they were less inclined than the rest of the population to take part in a civic duty such as voting.
Moreover, they are disproportionately likely to come from the sort of chaotic backgrounds that generally preclude political engagement. A 2010 report by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange suggested that as many as 35% of England and Wales's prison population were regular drug users.
For these reasons, former prison governor and warder Roger Outram is doubtful that more than a handful of British inmates would actually bother to participate.
"They're going to be more concerned with who their wife is spending time with on the outside or where they'll get their next fix," he says.
"I can honestly say that in 32 years in the Prison Service I never had a conversation with an inmate about elections."
Of course, this argument presupposes that convicts who were apolitical would remain so.
Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales and an advocate of the government's reform, anticipates that many prisoners would be attracted to casting a vote.
"I imagine if this comes in a lot of them will vote for the first time because it's a novelty - anything that's new or a break from the routine they'll try," he says.
"In the long-term, though, they should be educated about what the party manifestoes actually mean for their life chances when they come out. At the end of the day, the job of prison is to protect the public and reduce the risk of reoffending, and all members of the public should be asking questions of their MPs if that isn't happening."
Members of the public may disagree on whether giving the vote to prisoners is a good idea. But any reforms should cast light on the question of whether voting makes good citizens, or being good citizens makes voters.